Campus Security and the Specter of Mental-Health Profiling

Jon Krause for The Chronicle

January 30, 2011

Another shooting spree by a college student, another bout of soul-searching and agonizing in the media, and another call to ratchet up the psycho-security apparatus on campuses. In the wake of the shootings of Gabrielle Giffords and others by an apparently mentally ill young man who had been suspended from Pima Community College for his threatening demeanor and comments, college officials are sure to add to their already intense scrutiny of potentially violent students. Many institutions are constructing elaborate networks to detect such students and intervene before tragedy unfolds. In particular, mandatory evaluations (that is, involuntary visits to counselors or even psychiatric hospitals) are becoming a standard mechanism to enhance campus security. But do they make anyone safer? Or do they simply exacerbate the vulnerability of students who are considered unstable or mentally ill?

Jared Loughner, like the Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho and others before him, first attracted attention to his mental-health problems in a creative-writing class. Cho wrote several plays featuring extreme violence; Loughner read a disturbing poem called "Meathead" and laughed maniacally, and in another instance, he blurted out that babies should be attached to dynamite. There were similar inappropriate outbursts in mathematics and even gym class, and ominous signs on Facebook. The campus's department of public safety was engaged, and shortly after it reported to administrators on Loughner's disturbing worldview, Pima suspended him.

While Pima and Virginia Tech had different responses to the two shooters before they acted, both institutions have come under criticism for not doing enough to prevent the attacks. Pima sent a letter suspending Loughner and demanded that he produce a certificate from a mental-health professional stating that he was not dangerous. Loughner then voluntarily withdrew from the college. At Virginia Tech, in contrast, several professors tried to get Cho into counseling but were hampered by a policy of the school's counseling center that forbade "involuntary or ordered referrals." Nonetheless, both colleges have been criticized for failing to administer adequate psychological services to the shooters, or to steer them to a psychiatric hospital before they opened fire. That Pima is a low-cost community college with no on-campus mental-health center makes that judgment rather difficult to accept. But because of the Virginia Tech incident, it is now much easier to send risky or threaten­ing students against their will to such centers when they do exist, and in the wake of the Arizona shooting spree, we may expect that campuses will add more webbing to the psychiatric/law-enforcement net.

Since Virginia Tech, one of the biggest growth areas on college campuses has been "behavioral intervention teams," "threat assessment teams," and programs in "threat management," and even Pima Community College was in the process of developing a student behavior-assessment committee in the months leading up to the shooting in Tucson. The New York Times reports that more than half of the country's 4,500 colleges and universities already have some sort of threat-assessment team, and that percentage is sure to grow. And they are about to get very busy. Since Loughner was apprehended, a private clinic in Tucson that sees students for whom evaluation is required reports an uptick in involuntary appointments, already including one student from Pima.

Some of this upsurge is no doubt prompted by a genuine increase in students' threatening behavior and/or psychic stress—if reality can ever be cleanly separated from perception when we talk about mental health, that is. Distressed students, staff, and faculty may be experiencing genuine trauma as a result of the shootings, and some of them may exhibit behaviors that alarm classmates or colleagues. Contagion is not just a property of germs.

But part of the rise in required evaluations is the self-justifying growth of an apparatus that has not been proved to make anyone safer, and that may expose many students to harm. As Margaret Price makes clear in her book Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press), influential voices are arguing that we should try to get around the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act regulations, which protect the privacy of student education records, in order to monitor and sequester potentially "dangerous" students. On January 19, for example, a state representative in South Carolina introduced legislation that would require colleges and universities to turn over to the local police any files and records pertaining to students who are expelled for disruptive or antisocial behavior.

Who speaks for the student who is sent involuntarily to a counseling center, who gets a visit from the campus threat-management team, who is strong-armed into a psychiatric hospital? The case for such intervention looks unassailable when we work backward from Jared Loughner and Seung-Hui Cho, but what if we worked backward from every other case in which a student is swept up in this new campus surveillance? How are particular people in particular institutions determining which sorts of behavior are threatening and which are merely odd? And what are the factors—institutional, cultural, legal—that lead to these determinations? Are we witnessing a new sort of mental-health profiling analogous to the racial profiling that has become the subject of such controversy?

While looking back on these cases, we must work forward to consider all of our alternatives. Sociologists, psychologists, and administrators should track what happens to students who receive unwanted counseling, treatment, drugs, hospitalization. A longitudinal study would determine what sorts of consequences these sudden interventions have on the lives of students. Loughner's case will receive Talmudic scrutiny—and rightly so. It will give birth to a thousand reports, recommendations, and "action plans." The millions of other students—especially those whose lives will be directly affected by such plans—deserve the same attention.

Benjamin Reiss is a professor of English and director of graduate studies at Emory University. His book, Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture, was published in 2008 by the University of Chicago Press.